Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Hollowmen Solid

The ABC TV's new satire "The Hollowmen" got off to a solid, but not that funny start. The series is about a fictional policy development unit in parliament house, working for the prime minister. This is Australia's equivalent of "Yes Minister", if not "The West Wing". The first episode was about development of a policy on obesity. The prime minister first announced that the government was going to do something and then the policy people had to quickly respond to give the impression there was a policy.

The point of view expressed in the show is much the same as Frontline, produced by the same crew and with some of the same actors: there are those who are cynically manipulating the system with no interest except what helps them, there are those who are largely clueless as to what is happening but have the communication skills to make it appear they know, and there are experts who care and do know what to do but are kept from doing it by their lack of ability to manipulate the system.

The show explores the power relationship between the people in Parliament House: the politicians, the party staff, advisers, media, lobbyists and public servants. The message seemed to be that the only way to stay in political power is to spend your time trying to stay in power, with the result you actually have little real power.

As a former public servant I have been on the edge of this process, having very occasionally visited parliament house and a few times having to be involved with ministers offices. My experience was not that shown in the show: the people working there were sincere and did concern themselves with the public good. They did take advice from public servants. But they did have to balance this against political issues. The public servants did have a high level of frustration, but were not as naive as portrayed in the show.

Later as an ex-public servant I have been involved in the political process, helping with policy on ICT and the internet. What I found most heartening, was when an issue was the politicians were willing to work together across party lines in the public interest. They genuinely wanted to know what to do. But they then needed to temper that with what would be politically and publicly acceptable.

One activity I was involved in with which might be seen as a cynical political exercise was the 2020 summit. The critics called this a talk fest, which it was, but was still of some use.

The level of cynicism expressed in the show kept me from enjoying much of the humor. I found the plot with the manipulation of an important public health hard to believe. However, I then heard a real news report about the opposition's policy on climate change, which is that they support carbon trading but not if it increases the price of petrol. Given that the purpose of carbon trading is to reduce carbon emissions from sources such as petrol by using price signals, this makes no sense in the real world. However, in the political world a policy which would cause the deaths of millions of people in the long term makes sense if it temporarily fools the voters into thinking you are doing something.

What will likely save the show is the level of authenticity: the sets look like the corridors and meeting rooms of the real parliament house. The characters look and sound like the people working there, to the point where at a casual glance it looks like a documentary. However, this may turn into an inside joke, with only those involved in this process enjoying the joke, at the expense of themselves and their colleagues, with the rest of use just confused as to what it is all about.

ps: Perhaps it is another inside joke, but the web site for the show, demonstrates a cynical disregard for the viewer, having some flashy animation and graphics, with very little actual content. The design of the site is so bad that it probably illegal. If this is intended to be a comment on government web sites, it misses the mark, with the Prime Minister and Cabinet web site being informative and well designed.

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Blogger belle said...

Hollowmen is a must watch for me from now on. They nailed it for me.
When will John Clark be joining them? - love to see their reaction if he discussed the behind closed doors PM in a John Clark segment.
Waiting for a scene set at the BBQ at Manuka oval.
The pompous marketing/media types need more exposure for the stuck up self important gate activity they perform.
Plus the media types who think they outrank the politicians
And the politicians who find the public a distraction.
Please Hollowmen start a site where we can post things for you to inlcude. There is so much goss to put your way.

July 11, 2008 6:22 PM  

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